THe Wire | Issue 245, July 2004 | by Marc Masters

Devendra Banhart

23 year old prodigy Devendra Banhart has led a beatnik existence, arriving in California after wandering I from Venezuela several years ago with a bottomless cassette of mercurial, will-o’-wisp songs that caught the attention of Michael Gira. Now ensconced at the heart of a bohemian folk scene in San Francisco that includes renegades from Mazzy Star and My Bloody Valentine, Banhart has delivered his first ‘proper’ studio offering.

“I have a high tolerance for painkillers, and the shit they gave me is really not happening,” winces Devendra Banhart, spitting his words out through an aching mouth. While the wiry, warbling voice that graces Banhart’s two albums of hand- crafted folk is beautifully strange, it’s nearly normal compared to what he’s saddled with this mid-May morning, having endured oral surgery the previous afternoon. This is his third interview of the day, and his speech is a swamp of slurred syllables, strung between exasperated declarations of “Goddamn!” following each painful swallow. “Those motherfuckers, there’s not even codeine in this,” he spits, “it’s like Ibuprofen.” Even worse, he has to board a plane to Europe in less than 24 hours, starting an international tour that will last well into July.

But endurance is a concept that Banhart, an ebullient 23 year old who has spent most of his adulthood without a permanent residence , is familiar with. His second-latest- album, Rejoicing In The Hands, was recorded during a marathon session of 12 consecutive ten hour days. “It was very regimented. We would wake up around 9am, start recording at 10, and stop at 10pm,” says Banhart. “We recorded the songs on Rejoicing in order, from day to night. And the album can be played like that. The songs go from sunrise to sunset.” Banhart’s first album, the stirringly primitive Oh Me Oh My… The Way The Sun Goes By The Sun Is Setting Dogs Are Dreaming Loves Songs Of The Christmas Spirit, was an amalgam of homemade recordings crafted on four tracks and answering machines that finally saw the light of day in 2002. Thus Rejoicing is technically hid first studio album. But, as he explains,” I didn’t record this is a studio. I recorded it in a house. [ Engineer Lynn Bridges’s] studio in Atlanta was flooded, so we recorded it in his living room.

“I hate recording studios, actually. I have humiliated myself a few times trying to record in studios,” continues Banhart. “A studio is built to eliminate everything but the instruments, and I think in order to give the songs a sense of place , you need to include the birds and the wind and the sunrays and everything else that’s happening.”

Where Rejoicing truly differs from Oh Me Oh My is in its use of other musicians. After Banhart’s voice and guitar were recorded in Atlanta, he returned to New York –his home at the time- to add overdubs from a variety of collaborators. These enhancements give Banhart’s skeletal music undercurrents of depth, with parts growing organicallyout of the songs like mossy branches. “ I would have one sound in my head for what I wanted one of the musicians to play, and I would say, ‘ OK, play this’, and I would sing it,” he explains. “They would usually get it right the first time , and then I’d say, ‘Now , try anything you want . just freak out.’ We usually kept the first version , but sometimes the freakout worked too.

“The only song that I felt pressure on was the one with Vashti Bunyan,” he adds. “ I was very nervous about that.” Bunyan, a legendary British folk singer and Banhart’s idol, sings an aching, nursery-like duet with him on the album’s title track. “ I recorded it and sent it to her, and she sang over that,” he explains. “It’s beautiful, her voice sounds like a flute. She stands up at one point and you can hear the wood in her chair creaking. I’ve known her for a long time. She’s the reason I play live; I sent her my music before I was playing in front of people and asked her if I should do it or not, and she said, ‘Do it! . This is the person I admire the most musically. So it was really intense coming up with something that suited her.”

Rejoicing In The Hands itself is deceptively intense- casual in feel yet meticulous in its musical detail and lyrical economy. Most impressive is the record’s ability to recapture the aura of Banhart’s debut, despite a very different sound. The tape hiss and background noise on Oh Me Oh My create a creepy space, and Banhart’s songs are like a cinematic pan across a mental landscape, reminiscent of the psychological openness of Daniel Johnston’s early tapes. Rejoicing sounds clearer and more pristine, replacing its predecessor’s verite style with an austere intimacy that offers equally direct access to Banhart’s pulsing brain. “ The recordings on Oh Me Oh My don’t just capture the songs,” he argues, “they document the creation of the songs, and the psychology I was experiencing at that exact moment. Some people would call them sketches, but I think it’s more like a documentary. And I had to use whatever I had in front of me at the time. I clapped because I didn’t have a drum set, and I double-tracked my voice because I didn’t have a piano. Rejoicing is more like a film, more scripted. The songs lived with me and grew up and matured for a while before I recorded them.

The 16 tracks on Rejoicing are only half of what Banhart recorded in Atlanta; the rest will be released this autumn as Nino Rojo, a continuation of the sun myth he initiated on Rejoicing.
“The first represents the mother, the Golden Empress, which is the sun. Nino Rojo means red sun , and red son too,” he expounds. “The son is more excited than the mother, so the lyrics are more exuberant . Rejoicing is mostly observations; sonically it’s very calm. Nino Rojo is about a child off experiencing the world, and he has a lot more instruments in his songs.”

Despite such a lofty conceptual framework, Banhart’s songs are acutely simple , and dotted with aphoristic couplets and surreal jokes that are as roughly impulsive as they are cleverly literate. Examples abound on Rejoicing , from the plainly declarative “Will Is My Friend” , a hymn to a pal who “ sings like John Mayall”, to the manifesto “ A Sight To Behold”, which celebrates Banhart’s own artistic process- “ It’s a sight to behold/when you’ve got some old words to mould/and you can make them yours”. “ I have a difficult time writing narrative,” he admits. “ My lyric writing is cyclical, like a fly in a jar, or like someone walking into a wall,getting back up, walking into it again and getting back up again. As opposed to someone walking straight down the street, though ironically I think I actually get somewhere while I’m spinning.”

Born in Texas, Banhart grew up in Venezuela and Los Angeles. After attending art school in San Francisco (that taught me what to watch out for and what not to do,” he explains), he bounced between California and France, before moving to New York in 2001 at the behest of ex-Swan Michael Gira, now of Angels of Light and proprietor of Young God Records. Gira was so impressed by Bnahart’s home recordings (sent to him by former God Is My Co-Pilot member Siobhan Duffy, who had bought a tape from Banhart for two dollars) that he released them untouched as Oh Me Oh My on his Young God label. “Michael wrote me a ten page letter and sent me an Angels of Light record.and I knew Young God was the place for me,” asserts Banhart. “ I had imagined that the minute I got to New York there’d be this kind of folk community. But that wasn’t the case. And I certainly wanted nothing to do with anti-folk, cause I’m fucking pro-folk. But eventually things sarted to happen. I met Kevin Barker of Curritick Co, Mira Billotte of White Magic, Diane Cluck, CocoRosie and Antony [of Antony And The Johnsons], and things got really exciting. The minute I gave up on the thought that there might be some sort community, that community emerged. It’s like a gypsy-comes when you don’t want it, leaves when you do.”

Banhart’s enthusiasm for his peers is evidenced by a sparkling compilation, The Golden Apples Of The Sun, which he curated for Bastet Records, a label run by the 21st century countercultural broadsheet magazine, Arthur. The record’s scope reaches far beyond the confines of New York, encompassing the sharp improvisations of Virginia’s Jack Rose, the mythic folk of Philadelphia”s Espers, and the acoustic psych of San Francisco’s Six Organs Of Admittance. “New York is really a revolving door, an unsteady place full of exciting distractions,” exclaims Banhart, who has since moved to San Francisco. “ California is where Mother Nature is a young woman, while in the East Coast she’s an old lady. I like them both but am most attracted to the green below and the blue above of the West, not the grey of the East.” Ever the nomad, Banhart plans to move to the south of France later this year, to join his girlfriend Bianca Cassady of the sister duo CoCoRosie. “ Her mom is a bullfighter, and she lives on the same land as The Gypsy Kings,” says Banhart. “So it’ll be cool to maybe learn flamenco and play along to my girlfriend’s mom fighting a bull.”

Some days later , speaking from his hotel room in Oslo, Norway a week into his tour, Banhart’s voice has regained its clarity. “It’s OK now, I’m fine now,” he affirms. “They don’t have painkillers here, so I’ve just had to take the pain, but it’s fine.” His first performance of the trip was the most unlikely: a spot on the BBC TV show Later With Jools Holland, sandwiched between pop singers Alanis Morrisette and Alicia Keys. While he was underwhelmed by the former, “ Alicia was amazing ,” he exclaims.” We talked about early HipHop and ponchos and Stevie Wonder. I was so into her music too. She was just amazing.”

Asked how the rest of the tour has gone, he replies, “It’s been really unbelievably good. Though I don’t really know for sure, because I live in this state of kind of willed ignorance. Like when I see myself in a magazine, I’m nit sure it’s me. It’s a natural instinct that I think is a healthy way to look at things. So I don’t know if the shows have been good, but I think they have.”

Banhart’s live persona does seem somewhat distant and out of body. He sits cross legged onstage, playing with a rambling, unhinged looseness, often altering sings radically as if directed by some higher power. “When I first started playing I would sit on chairs and always fall off at some point. So I decided I like to have my ass on the earth,” he laughs. “I change songs to match how I am feeling. It’s like painting: you paint your paintings alone, and then you’re expected to paint the same painting for a bunch of people. It’s going to come out different. It would be so boring if I had to do the same goddamned thing every time.” A stunning example of this restless elasticity is the version of Oh Me Oh My’s “Michigan State” that Banhart performed on California radio station KCRW in May. On record, the song is an eerie ode to a daydreamed future residence, but on KCRW it became a rambling standup routine, with Banhart rolling out the lyrics like a post modern Tiny Tim. “ It was really early in the morning, and there’s no audience in front of you there, so I was imagining these squares drinking coffee in the morning and shit,” he smiles. “ And I just reacted to that.” Such button down experiences are a long way off from Banhart’s original initiation into live performance years ago. “ I was invited to play a wedding for my roommates Bob the Crippled Comic who is called that because he is crippled and is a comedian for a living, and Jerry Elvis, who is an Elvis impersonator, “ he recalls.” And they asked me to play “How Great Thou Art” and “Love Me Tender”. I didn’t sleep for three days before it happened, I was so nervous. It went well, but I have no idea why I kept playing after that.”

In Europe, Banhart has been accompanied by his friend Andy Cabic, playing Rejoicing In The Hands from start to finish, followed by songs he’s written with Cabic and a cache of covers by artists ranging from Neil Young to Gordon Lightfoot to Sheila E. Cabic is the leader of Vetiver, a California group that includes Banhart as well as Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star and Colm O’Ciosoig of My Bloody Valentine, and has recently released a self-titled debut of subtle old school folk. “Andy is a genius, the best songwriter in the world,” declares Banhart. “We started playing together because I used to work at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. One night they were showing Benjamin Smoke, which is my favorite documentary of all time [ about legendary American fringe musician Benjamin]. Afterwards Andy played me his song “Farther On”, and it was unbelievable; I had never heard a song that good from another living human being. Soon after that we started playing every day.
“We’ve written a lot of songs together,” he continues. “ Some aren’t appropriate for my records or his, so we have all these little side projects that no one’s ever heard. One of them is inspired by Domingo, Caetano Veloso and Gal Costa’s first record. We ‘re hoping to get Arto Lindsay to find us a studio in Bahia, and record that in Portugese and Spanish. We’ve got a bunch of other projects too. One of them is called Marc Bollan’s Best Friend Jimi Hendrix Featuring Michael Jackson.

Banhart’s awareness of and obsession with his antecedents organically informs every part of his work,. His music is so drenched in the past, yet so of the moment, that it feels like an encyclopedia turned into a David Cronenberg prop: throbbing and wheezing with transformed history, sprouting sticky wings made of yellowing paper. This seam bursting knowledge is especially evident in his singing, a curious yowl recalling old bluesmen, carnival callers, movie gangsters and even cartoon characters. His voice seems to span epochs within single notes, creaking with age and cracking with youth. “After my first tour,” he says, “ I realized that if I don’t sing with my most natural comfortable voice, if it doesn’t come from a pure and honest place, it will kill me to do what I’m doing, because it’s just me and the guitar every night for months and months. So if I put up some sort of façade, it will just kill me. I was really young when I recorded Oh Me Oh My, and my voice was still cracking, and it still does.”

As a child in Venezuela, Banhart’s voice was his first instrument. “ I had a friend who had two drumsticks and he banged them on some clay pots, and I just sang along. When I was nine I wrote my first song, “We’re All Going To Die”, about plastic surgery,” he deadpans. “Venezuela has the highest rate of plastic surgery in the whole world. It’s cheap there, like five bucks a session. We even gave our Schnauzer dog plastic surgery to make it look loke my grandmother, because it’s a status thing for the whole family to all look alike. So I wrote a song about how we’re all going to die getting plastic surgery.

“The music I remember hearing when I was growing up was Juan Luis Guerra And 440, EMF’s “Unbelievable, Garth Brook’s “Bury the Hatchet”, and the Milli Vanilli record, which I memorized completely.” Continues Banhart. “ I didn’t start researching music and putting effort into finding records until I was about 14 or 15, when my dad went to a record store during a trip to London. He said, ‘My son likes acoustic music,’ and the guy at the record store said, ‘He’ll like Nick Drake.’ So my dad bought me that , but when I opened it , it was actually a Radiohead CD. I thought, ‘this is Ok, but I really want to find that Nick Drake CD. ‘And that began this quest for finding stuff.”

The quest to play guitar came much later, inspired by opposite sources. “ I really started playing guitar because of this hatred for the Eagles,” he spits. ‘”I hate that band. And I hate Sammy Hagar and Van Halen and all that bullshit. I knew that that kind of playing took chops, so the only conscious thing I did with my guitar playing was to stay away from that. I’m still learning. My favorite guitar player is Kevin Barker [of Currituck Co], and I really like Jack Rose, Ben Chasny[of Six Organs Of Admittance], Robbie Basho and John Fahey. “One song of Rejoicing, the delicately picked “Tit Smoking In The Temple Of Artesan Mimicry”, reveals both how far Banhart’s playing has come and how far he feels it can still go. “It’s an homage to John Fahey and Canned Heat,” he admits. “They are in the true Temple Of Artistry- I’m simply singing their praise in mimicry.”

No content to restrict his obsessions to folk-hued influences, Banhart insists on getting distracted by a myriad of sources. “Lately, I’ve unintentionally been writing reggae songs,” he confesses. “To me reggae is the highest form of folk music. It’s political, it speaks to the people and it’s by the people. And it takes from the best things about music and still makes it completely its own. So in the future I definitely want to write reggae songs. There’s one song on Nino Rojo that represents that, it’s called “Be Kind”, and it’s going to come out as a single in August before the record comes out.”

That he remains so spellbound ny the music that inspires him is perhaps what makes Banhart’s own rickety strain of history laden, present tense folk so enticing.” I don’t mind if I never sing again or write again or play guitar again or, as long as I can still listen to that music,” concludes Banhart.” It’s like what John Fahey said, as told to me by No-Neck Blues Band from when they toured with him. They were all sitting around one day, and he said, ‘What is all this shit people say about what God is? Don’t they know? Music is God’.”